Capitol Idea: If Not ‘Mano-a-Mano,’ What Were You Expecting, Mr. Speaker?

“I didn’t sign up for going man

If Boehner doesn't like going "mano-a-mano" with President Obama, he shouldn't have helped to pick this fight.

o-a-mano with the President of the United States.”
— House Speaker John Boehner

In a town otherwise dominated politically by Democrats, just what did Republican John Boehner think he was signing on for when he ousted Nancy Pelosi as House speaker?

Indeed, Boehner seemed destined from the day he took the speaker’s gavel to, eventually, have to take on the president — especially with that cadre of tea party conservative freshmen nipping at his heels.

If Boehner didn’t think he’d have to go “mano-a-mano” with President Obama, he’s probably the only one not to have entertained that particular notion.

What’s most striking about the current crisis is how history really is just repeating itself.

We’ve been here before, and we’re partying like it’s 1995 all over again.

That’s the last time congressional Republicans played a political game of federal budget chicken with a Democratic president.

Back then, the stakes were a government shutdown. As disastrous as a shutdown then seemed, a simple shutdown now seems quaint compared to the real possibility of a full, first-ever-in-history, default by the federal government.

After the shutdowns of the mid 1990s were over, the federal parks re-opened, government workers were paid retroactively for the time they were furloughed, and everyone went on the merry ways.

Default, however, will be with us for much longer. The federal government’s so-far sterling credit rating will be downgraded, interest rates will go up for everyone, hundreds of thousands of Americans could lose their jobs, and the nation could go back into recession.

Boehner, by his own admission, is one of the Republicans who insisted on tying a routine increase in the federal debt ceiling to some larger budget deal in the first place.

It didn’t have to be this way.

Republicans, after all, helped raise the debt limit many times in the past: 17 times under President Ronald Reagan, four times under President Bill Clinton, seven times under President George W. Bush, and it has been raised three times thus far under President Obama.

But by helping to link the debt ceiling to deficit reduction, Boehner actually helped guarantee the whole thing would end in confrontation.

What’s most surprising is that Boehner seems surprised.

After all, he was there in the House for that last game of budget chicken.

He saw first hand how Bill Clinton out-maneuvered then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and actually then used the whole mess to ride to re-election.

So just why is Boehner so amazed that Barack Obama would be doing the same thing right now?

Perhaps Boehner’s only sore that he’s on the losing end of the contest. Americans “expressed more trust in President Obama than in congressional Republicans to make decisions about both the federal deficit and debt ceiling,” according to a new poll.

I’m sorry, Mr. Speaker, but you saw this train coming — and you still decided to jump in front of it.

I’d say, “Better luck next time,” but maybe Republican speakers finally will learn it’s never worth going mano-a-mano with the president of the United States.


Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade. Capitol Idea is his regular column from Washington. This article was first published as If Not ‘Mano-a-Mano,’ What Were You Expecting, Mr. Speaker? on Blogcritics.

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